With the election of former Wildcat basketball player Richie Farmer eight years ago, Kentuckians proved they have no problem putting a political novice in the post of agriculture commissioner.
Now another man named Farmer hopes voters will do it again. Louisville marketing executive Bob Farmer, a Democrat, is making his first run for public office this year against Republican state Rep. Jamie Comer, a farmer and former insurance agent from Tompkinsville.
Bob Farmer handily defeated four opponents to win the Democratic primary for agriculture commissioner in May despite spending less and having no previous political experience. Nor does he have direct farming experience.
"He's just a joke," Comer said of Bob Farmer. "It's offensive to people in the agriculture industry. ... It would be a shame for the leader of one of the state's most important industries to be such a weak link."
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture's two primary duties are regulation — inspecting a host of items including gasoline pumps, amusement rides and the harvesting of wild ginseng — and promotion of agriculture.
For the last few years, Bob Farmer has been a spokesman for the Farmers' Almanac. He was drawn to the campaign, he said, to give back, and he wants to bring his marketing skills to the job.
"This is not a contest about who's the best farmer," he said, adding that he has never pretended to be a farmer. "This is about who is best for Kentucky."
Comer disputed that notion this week at a forum hosted by Kentucky Farm Bureau, saying the job is about agriculture, not marketing.
"In order to be a successful commissioner of agriculture, I believe you have to have credibility within the industry," Comer told the Farm Bureau board, which does not endorse candidates. "I hope I have credibility. I'm confident I have more credibility than my opponent."
Comer, who has served on the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee since his election in 2001, said he has the experience necessary to fight more budget cuts.
"If we don't have a serious, credible agriculture commissioner in there, with a good relationship with the General Assembly like I have, that budget will continue to be whittled down," Comer said.
His gold standard for the office, he said, is former Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Billy Ray Smith, who like Comer, had been a state legislator.
Earlier this year, Smith said that he wouldn't endorse anyone and that both candidates have their strong suits, but he said farming and Frankfort legislative experience are necessary for the job.
"I think it's so important that we choose the right candidate in that race and maybe not look at political party," Smith said. "There is a clear choice."
There also is a wide disparity between the two candidates in fund-raising.
According to reports filed with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Comer has raised more than $650,000 from all over the state, including from former Democratic Gov. Brereton Jones and more than half of the members of the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, which was appointed by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.
Comer's campaign has about $400,000 to pour into a last-minute push for votes.
Farmer's campaign has raised $130,000 and has $96,000 in cash on hand. Farmer spokesman Brian Wright said more fund-raisers, including one hosted by former U.S. Rep. Scotty Baesler, D-Lexington, and his wife, Alice, are planned for this month.
After his upset win in May, there was speculation that voters picked Bob Farmer partly because of his name.
"He won the primary because people thought he was Richie Farmer," Comer said in an interview this week. "The only supporters he has are people he's promised jobs to."
Bob Farmer dismisses the idea that voters have confused him for Richie Farmer.
"There's a lot of people, when I'm introduced, their first question is, 'Are you related to Richie Farmer?' And I say no," Bob Farmer said. "And they say, 'good.' "
Bob Farmer pointed to questionable spending by the current Ag Commission administration on hotel rooms at basketball tournaments and a state SUV, and he said that based on the name, "I think I'm going to lose as many votes as I gain."
Sometimes, it sounds almost as if Bob Farmer is running as much against Richie Farmer as against Comer.
"The first thing I'll do is sell that luxury SUV. I'm going to drive my own car," he said. "Then have a full audit ... Let's see where we're wasting money. I think I'm going to be aghast at the waste of money."
Politics have figured more prominently than issues in the race so far.
Farmer has called Comer a career politician with Tea Party leanings.
"He's a slick politician," Farmer said. "It's a steppingstone. He doesn't want to be agriculture commissioner. This guy's really got an agenda."
Last month, Farmer accused Comer of using a House Republican Caucus employee to do campaign work while on state time. The Legislative Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint earlier this week.
Comer denied grander political designs.
"All I want is to be commissioner of agriculture. I don't know what a Tea Party agenda is," he said. "He can't say he stands for anything, so he's just got to bash me."
Farmer's campaign faltered a bit in the spring when video surfaced of him doing a stand-up comedy routine that made fun of Eastern Kentuckians as lacking in teeth and genetic diversity.
"It was positioned to offend, and when I saw it, I was offended," Farmer said.
The video, he said, was 10 years old. Farmer apologized and said he has since been well received in the eastern half of the state while campaigning.
Both candidates say they prefer to focus on their platforms.
Farmer plans to consolidate the department's three existing Frankfort offices and add four regional agriculture offices. He also wants to build on existing urban agriculture programs and proposes a "Coal to Crops" program that would use reclaimed mining land to grow biomass crops for power generation.
Comer also has focused on urban agriculture initiatives, and on supporting tax breaks for horse farms, expanding the biofuels industry and supporting industrial hemp as an alternative crop. He pledged to open an urban agriculture office to work with local governments, charities and farm groups, such as the Community Farm Alliance to promote community gardens.
Comer also wants to redirect Kentucky's rural economic development efforts to focus on food processing, which he said would help farmers and bring jobs to the state.
"We're going to create food processors all over Kentucky in rural communities," he said. "We've been focused on selling at the retail level and farmers markets rather than processing. ... People want locally grown foods and want to support local farmers."
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has an annual budget of about $30 million and a diverse operation, but much of the focus in recent years has been encouraging the purchase of Kentucky farm products through the Kentucky Proud marketing effort.
Both candidates said they would work to further that program, although in different ways.
"I said from Day One, it's all about marketing," Farmer said.
To that end, he said, he would outsource much of the advertising work currently being done in-house, even if it means cutting state employees.
Comer said he wants to expand Kentucky's organic foods program. "This is a real growth area in agriculture," Comer said. "There's a huge demand for organically grown foods in Kentucky and across the United States. And we're not meeting that demand."